The Direct to Video Connoisseur

I'm a huge fan of action, horror, sci-fi, and comedy, especially of the Direct to Video variety. In this blog I review some of my favorites and not so favorites, and encourage people to comment and add to the discussion. If you click on an image, it will take you to that post's image page, which includes many more pics from the film and other goodies I couldn't fit in the actual review. For announcements and updates, don't forget to Follow us on Twitter and Like our Facebook page. If you're the director, producer, distributor, etc. of a low-budget feature length film and you'd like to send me a copy to review, you can contact me at dtvconnoisseur[at]yahoo.com. I'd love to check out what you got.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Undisputed III: Redemption (2010)

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When last we left the Undisputed gang, they were in a Russian prison, and Michael Jai White had just busted Scott Adkins' knee to shit and won a big prison tournament. Now they're back, with Adkins reprising his role, and DTVC favorite Isaac Florentine (Ike-Flo to those in The Biz) taking the helm again as director. This could be good.

Undisputed III picks up where part 2 left off. Adkins is recovering from his bum knee, and trying to be the fighter he once was. He defeats his current prison's champ, and is entered into an international prison fighting tournament in Georgia-- not the Peach State, but the country. Anyway, when he gets there, he finds out things aren't kosher, as he and the other fighters are sent to do hard labor and other crap so they'll be less able to win and beat that prison's champ, some Colombian dude. Can Adkins overcome all this and win his freedom?

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This would've been so hot if they had focused more on the great Florentine fight scenes and less on the whole set-up of the prison and the plans to rig the tournament. Sweaty buff guys hitting rocks is great for a Pride Film, and I'm not knocking that as a genre at all, I'm just saying, we signed on for an action flick, and based on some of Florentine's other work, and what we got here when it happened, we know he can deliver. I mean, every fight scene was great-- the problem was, between the first round and second round in the tournament, there was this huge gap of blah. Fuck plot and character development-- or at the every least, mix it in with the action so there isn't a huge block of blah in the middle. Contrary to what the script writers may think, all that shit doesn't matter, it's the action that counts. If I want character development, I'll check out an Ozu film on Watch Instantly.

That being said, Scott Adkins is great again, and I liked his character here better than in Ninja, just because he wasn't running away from anyone. In fact, a huge improvement over Undisputed II was how little we had to endure Adkins's character being beaten up by guards and what not. I also understand that, he being the best fighter and star of the film, we don't want them to overdo it and have too much of him fighting. Fair enough, what we got was plenty and spectacular. I just wanted less boring plot and sweaty buff guys breaking rocks. Another great Isaac Florentine and Adkins pairing nonetheless.

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We have another Baller Blockin' alum, this time in Mykel Shannon Jenkins, the guy who played Garr in the Hip Hop classic. Here he was great, but didn't have anywhere near the material he had in his few short scenes in Baller Blockin'-- but who does. I think this is a good place to demonstrate why I might be hard on a film like Undisputed III. There's Baller Blockin', without a wasted minute of film (mostly because they probably decided making a movie was harder than they thought, so they gave up and slapped a "To be continued..." on the last scene), then I got this where I'm like "I thought this was an action flick". I watch DTV because I don't want character development, too much plot, etc. There are too many places I can go to if I want that sort of thing where they'll do it well. If you need character development, give it to me in an action filled flashback. If you need plot, give it to me in between explosions as the characters are escaping a shootout at an abandoned warehouse. Otherwise, don't waste my time. There's plenty of Godard on Watch Instantly.

An as far as being a DTV director goes, Florentine is really starting to make a name for himself and put together that résumé that earns one a spot in the DTVC Hall of Fame. Currently there's only one there right now for his directorial work, Albert Pyun, though Cirio H. Santiago will be in the 2010 class. Could Florentine be there in 2011? It's too soon to tell, but he's well on his way.

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I just saw a great film recently called North Face (Nordwand), which was about rock climbers in 1936 trying to conquer the infamous Eiger North Wall. In the review I gave on my Tumblr blog, I discussed how it was extremely scary, yet no one was tortured to death or had their eyeballs gouged out. Anyway, the other great element the film used was the juxtaposition between the climbers bivouacking in the freezing cold on the side of a mountain, while the onlookers partied away in the luxury hotel at the base. This film employed the same contrast, showing the crime bosses betting on the fights in this luxurious hotel in Tbilisi, while the fighters languished in the horrible prison. I don't know if Florentine or the script writers got the idea from Nordwand, but I couldn't help notice the similarities.

This is definitely a better film watched in a group so you and your friends can talk about other things during the blah parts, and then dig the too sweet fight scenes that really make the movie. Really, it's a four-star film that's twenty minutes too long, making it a solid three-star film, which in the end isn't that bad, is it?

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1156466/

Monday, June 28, 2010

No Retreat, No Surrender 2 (1987)

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The procurement of this film was a pretty tight one. I thought I had it coming from one source, but then that fell though, so I went somewhere else, and then it was a question of, do I get it on time for a Monday post? I got it on Saturday, meaning it all worked out. No Retreat, No Surrender 2, ready to go.

No Retreat, No Surrender 2 really had nothing to do with the first one, which was fine with me, because that movie was only okay, and this was pretty awesome. Our hero (Loren Avedon) is in Thailand to reunite with his bride-to-be and meet her parents. Only thing is, she's kidnapped, the fam is murdered, and the dad has to pay a ransom. That's when Avedon hooks up with an old buddy who's into all kinds of military shit. The two of them get a chopper ride into Cambodia from Cynthia Rothrock in an attempt to save the girl. Only possible snag? The girl is being held by Matthias Hues.

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This movie was pretty sweet. Long by about 25 minutes, but pretty sweet. Corey Yuen is an awesome director and fight choreographer, he just needed to take the script and trim it down, because there is no bad action movie story that can't be told in under 88 minutes, let alone the whopping 104 this one came in at. The best way to enjoy this and get the full effect without getting bored? Do what I did, and work on a crossword puzzle. Then when I needed a break from it, I could get back to the film and see another great fight scene-- and I think I'm selling them short, because they were pretty first class. If someone just edited it down so it was only a montage of the fight scenes, you'd have a five-star film.

We'll start, as we always do, with the film's Hall of Famer. Don't let her presence on the cover fool you, she is not the star, or even the co-star, she's more like third, right after Avedon's buddy and above Matthias Hues. That means she does get some solid fight scenes, but not the bigger ones Avedon gets. That's okay, it worked out well for me, I just don't want anyone going in looking for a Cynthia Rothrock film to be disappointed, because this is really a Loren Avedon one.

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And speak of the devil, our man is back, DTVC favorite Loren Avedon. One thing No Retreat, No Surrender 2 did even better than The King of the Kickboxers, was showcase how good Avedon can be. Great fight scenes, and he really goes for it in every one of them. If you thought Corey Yuen's The Transporter was great, this was even better, and a big part of that was Avedon. Right now we have about ten or eleven films left of his to do, it'll just be a matter of finding them all.

Matthias Hues is back again, this time as a Russian. I'm trying to think if we have a film where he plays a good guy. I'm trying to think if I've ever seen one even. When are Germans ever good guys? Uwe Boll employs Til Schweiger, and I guess he counts. Was it Klaus Kinski who started this trend of German baddies? I guess it was probably Hitler, right? If it sounds like I'm dumping on the Germans a bit too much, let me then say that they really got after against the English yesterday. I can't wait to see them play Argentina.

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There was a lot of sex trade going on in this film. Avedon accidentally stays in a brothel, and then he meets his buddy at a strip club in the red light district. In 2000, at the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting, I went to see a presentation a woman gave on her study of the Thai sex trade, entitled Little Brown Fucking Machines Powered by Rice. I guess that's what the Western businessmen who go to Thailand call them. Her main issue was with how Western men have it in their minds that these girls love them and love doing sexual favors for them, as opposed to poor girls selling their bodies because they have no other option. This film doesn't really do much to dispel that myth.

This is a tough one for me, because it was long and drawn out, but it also had some really great action, so I'm giving it a solid recommendation. I would say watch it while you're doing a crossword or Sudoku, or maybe while you're cleaning the house. Maybe I should edit together an all fight version and see what that ends up like.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097991/

Friday, June 25, 2010

Du bi quan wang da po xue di zi aka Master of the Flying Guillotine (1975)

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As we continue our DTVC Wild Card look at Hong Kong cinema, we move into that limbo period people often talk about, after Bruce Lee's death, and before the emergence of Jackie Chan. One of the key figures, both before Bruce Lee, and after Jackie Chan, but also during this limbo period, was Yu Wang, writer, director, and star of this film, Master of the Flying Guillotine. A completely independent project, which was rare at the time, it definitely flies in the face of the notion that there was no Hong Kong cinema between Lee and Chan.

Master of the Flying Guillotine was in part a sequel to The One-Armed Boxer, and a use of a Shaw Brothers weapon, the Flying Guillotine. The film takes place in early Ch'ing (Qing) Dynasty China, and the ruling Manchus want to wipe out any Ming dissension, so they send assassins trained in the use of the deadly Flying Guillotine out to kill anyone fomenting unrest. Two of these men are killed by the One-Armed Boxer (Yu Wang), so the Master of the Flying Guillotine, a blind man, goes to hunt him down and exact his revenge. He finds Yu at a major tournament, and he recruits all the foreign fighters to help him track down Yu. Now Yu must fight not only him, but them as well.

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I actually watched this film with the commentary that came with it, which was done by two experts in the genre. They offered a lot of in sight and background that I didn't have. They also may have been a little geeky, as in one scene where the hot daughter of the master holding the tournament is writhing on the ground, her curves showing under her clothes as she does so, and all they can talk about is how amazing the Flying Guillotine looks in this film. (I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and say they were joking.) Though it had its silly moments, it also had tons of awesome ones. Yu Wang did a lot to put the genre on its ear here as well. There were no scenes of one guy taking on ten others, and the hero often had to use his brains more than his brawn to overcome his enemies. Going that route had some interesting effects, like the sadistic way in which he defeats the Thai boxer in a burning building.

The other thing to consider is the job Yu Wang does as a director here. Much of Hong Kong cinema at that time was about getting the films out fast and cheaply (the commentators likened it to the modern porn industry as far as a production model), and for that reason we tend to associate them with an overall poor quality. Again, there was some silliness in Master of the Flying Guillotine, but a lot of the scenes were really well shot, not just for Hong Kong cinema, but for all movies. You'd have fight scenes in very closed quarters, and we'd always have a sense of the space. Then he'd manage the same thing way out in the open. Great stuff.

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Ever wonder where the idea for Dhalsim came from? It was funny listening to the commentary about this, because one of the guys kept talking about what a great effect it was, and the other one would try and talk him down from that ledge, but he wouldn't hear of it. Dude, I was totally on board when you talked about how inspired a lot of the scenes looked, but the Indian guy with the stretchy arms looked ridiculous. You can't win 'em all.

If you're not familiar with Yu Wang and what he did for Jackie Chan's career, you may have noticed Jackie has done some pretty bad films in the 80s and 90s, and wondered why in the hell he would do that. That's Yu Wang and the debt Chan owes him. Yu helped Chan get out of a contract by brokering a deal with the studios and the Triads that held sway. Without that Chan wouldn't have been able to break out like he did. Yu saw something in him, and now if he needs a favor, say an actor for one of his films, Jackie's there.

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I'm not sure to what degree Kurosawa's movies have influenced Hong Kong cinema. I'd say probably not much considering the animosity between the Japanese and Chinese that's always been there, and the bad blood from World War II that still existed into the 60s and 70s. I only bring it up because that scene of the house on the cliff like that reminded me of The Hidden Fortress. I'm sure there are probably tons of old Hong Kong films that used similar screen shots. I should also quickly point out, this was technically a Taiwanese film, because Yu Wang wasn't aloud to make movies in Hong Kong after he split from the Shaw Brothers while still under contract.

The version of this film I got was the same one I have the cover image for at the top of the post. It's worth it to check out with the commentary as well, but at the very least, if you get that one, you know you're getting the whole film, not any kind of edited version.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0072913/

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Dubei dao aka The One-Armed Swordsman (1967)

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We continue our Wild Card look at Hong Kong cinema here at the DTVC, with the iconic One-Armed Swordsman. I'm not entirely sure, but I think this might be the only Shaw Brothers film we review in this series, which I know sounds crazy, but I think that's just how things fell. Maybe next time around I'll devote more slots to them.

The One-Armed Swordsman follows the life of Fang Kang, who was raised as a boy by his father's master, after his father died protecting him from an attack (the master, not Fang). Anyway, as he's grown, he's become one of the best, which makes some of his classmates jealous, specifically two who are pining after the master's hot daughter, Pei-er. Pei-er has the hots for Fang, and when he he doesn't reciprocate, she slashes at him with her sword in a fit of anger, lopping off his right arm. Fang runs off, and is saved by a woman who lives alone on a farm. She nurses him back to health, but is distraught when he starts teaching himself how to fight again with just one arm, because she wants him to leave fighting behind and live a safer life. He wants the same, but when another clan wages war against his old master, he finds he has to go back and fight with him one more time, out of a sense of honor.

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This is an excellent film. The action was great-- for a movie with "swordsman" in the title, the sword fighting better be good, and it was-- and it was constant. I think what I liked most was how it had some messages that it wanted to impart to the audience, but it did it in a way that wasn't preachy, and also that didn't detract from the action. It was a little long for me, especially at the end when I thought Fang took his sweet time coming to his master's rescue, but that's a minor issue. Overall, well worth its status as a classic in Hong Kong cinema.

I brought this up in the Heatseeker post, but I'm going to get into it in more detail here because it was the film's raison d'etre. I'm talking about this Zen concept of using a handicap or detriment as a boon toward success, as opposed to viewing it simply as an obstacle. It's interesting as an American and looking at that in practice in my own culture. Growing up, a different message was always driven into us: you need to overcome handicaps, not accept them and use them to your advantage. Fang's story over here would've been the true story of Jim Abbott, a former MLB pitcher with one arm. The difference is, Abbott became a major league pitcher in spite of his handicap, while Fang used his handicap to become a different fighter, and it was as a different fighter that he was eventually able to prevail. I guess the way to look at it is, in the American instance, it's about taking the hand one's dealt, and playing it the same way one would play a better one, while the Zen message is, one must play the hand one's dealt in a manner befitting the hand.

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There's another big message looming in this film, and that one is about women. The message is, beware of beautiful women, they might be dangerous. It's better to find one who may not be as attractive, but who is loyal and cares. Within that message, of course, is the message that, no matter how many times they're told, men seldom listen and fall for the beautiful woman who in the end will be their downfall anyway. It sounds crazy to think that anyone would dump the woman who nursed them to health in favor of the woman who cut off their arm, but considering how hot the chick is in The One-Armed Swordsman, it's almost believable. But Fang is our wise hero, and he knew better than to fall for the beautiful Pei-er from the start-- and even that wasn't enough to keep him from letting down his guard and her cutting off his arm. Obviously this is an extreme metaphor-- a girl so beautiful a guy would take her back after she cut off his arm-- but if you drop it down a few notches and think about it, how many guys do you know have taken a woman back after, say, busting up his car, or destroying his clothes? Not so far fetched now, is it? Now I want to make clear, I'm not saying all beautiful women are bad news, just that men are blinded by beauty and do things that are not in their best interests.

There's always been a sort of cross-pollination between Hong Kong cinema and the Western, and you can see that quite a bit in The One-Armed Swordsman, right down to the bar fight sequence toward the end. I'm not sure when this movie takes place, but I heard in the commentary to Master of the Flying Guillotine that the Chinese consider the period under the Ch'ing (Qing) Dynasty to be like our Old West, so if this film took place in that time period-- which I think it did-- it would make sense that it would have that Western feel. I took a class as an undergrad in East Asian civilization, but that was over ten years ago, so things are a little fuzzy now.

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I watched the Dragon Dynasty version of this, and it was great. Over on Matt,Movie Guy, I've been looking at all the Kurosawa films on Netflix Watch Instantly, and saying how lucky we are to have so many good transfers of these movies so easily available. The same can be said about a lot of the Hong Kong films we've been looking at too, and probably to a much larger extent. Mr. Kenner and I were discussing the Chinatown EP bootleg VHS versions of some of these we used to have to endure, and now companies like Dragon Dynasty are bringing them to us on high quality DVDs. It's an exciting time to watch movies.

And that's my recommendation, because I'm sure most people are like me and they've seen this before (in my case almost 20 years ago!): check out the Dragon Dynasty version if you haven 't already. It's well worth it, and also it's a longer cut than you probably saw on VHS.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061597/

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Heatseeker (1995)

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I'm always conflicted at the DTVC on whether I'd rather write the blog from the stand point of a regularly occurring phenomenon, or as an archive of film reviews that someone can go to and look at each one independent of the others. For instance, when I found my buddy's VHS of Heatseeker, I thought it would be great to review on the same week I planned on reviewing The One-Armed Swordsman and Master of the Flying Guillotine, because it was so similar to those two. On the other hand, if someone just clicks on the Albert Pyun or Gary Daniels tags, or a link in a future blog to them or anyone else associated with this movie, that provenance of the original post won't mean as much. I guess what I try to do is write for both types of reader, the everyday and the future visitor.

Heatseeker takes place in 2019-20, and is about corporations who specialize in cybernetic implants that enhance people's lives. Norbert Weisser is the evil CEO and head designer of one corporation, and he has completely outfitted Gary Daniels with state of the art equipment, and wants to show him off by having him fight against every other cybernetic implant corporation's best fighter. He also wants Keith Cooke, the world's best un-enhanced martial artist to compete, and when he refuses, Weisser kidnaps his woman and makes him. Can Cooke use the one quality humans have over machines, his heart, to prevail over the Tin Man Gary Daniels?

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Some of the reviews of this film were pretty harsh, and though I wasn't a huge fan of it either, I think I see what Pyun was going for, and I was a fan of that. It looked like he wanted to take the Hong Kong cinema element of the handicapped fighter, the Zen concept of using a detriment to one's benefit, and put it in a futuristic setting. Instead of a one-armed boxer, Pyun's hero's one handicap is that he's a human fighting cyborgs, and the way he can use that handicap to his advantage is to be as human as possible. Again, I love the idea, it was the execution that was sautéed in wrong sauce. By having Cooke's character be forced into fighting, as opposed to fighting on his own to prove a point, we're forced to suffer through Cooke being knocked around for the first chunk of the film, so when he prevails at the end, it's much less believable. Imagine this: Cooke's lady forbids him to go, but he goes anyway, leaving her waiting at a hotel, just like the One-Armed Swordsman. Why not have him willingly fight, and no one else believe he has a chance because he's a human?

As you see I went with Gary Daniels' Max Headroom look. I've never understood the idea of making the lead actor's eyes a weird color. Remember when Terminal Justice did the same thing with Lorenzo Lamas. Anyway, Daniels was the baddie, but his martial arts were still pretty sweet. I would say, as far as DTVC Hall of Famers go, this was clearly Pyun's film, and Daniels was just along for the ride, as Keith Cooke was the hero, and it was more of a Pyun and Cooke film than a Pyun and Daniels film. Firepower will probably be our next Daniels film, whenever we get to it.

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This film is a rarity in that it employs Keith Cooke, not as a part of the supporting cast, but as the main hero. Unfortunately, because he gets his ass kicked for a good chunk of the movie, he wasn't as good as he could've been, but I don't put that on him. Ever wonder what Mr. Cooke has been up to? Check this video out on YouTube.

One of the worst plot devices in movies is the play-by-play guy. Few things sound worse than an actor reading from a script, trying to mimic the spontaneity of real play-by-play accompanying a real sporting event. I see what Pyun was going for with it. The tournament was very Master of the Flying Guillotine and Enter the Dragon (Mr. Weisser, I think I'd like to leave your island), and the play-by-play, along with the TV screens and cyber martial artists, were supposed to follow that Cyber-Punk-fused-with-Hong-Kong-cinema paradigm. Again, cool idea, but just didn't translate well on the screen-- at least for me.

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If you play the Albert Pyun drinking game, you know the key is looking for how many of his ubiquitous mainstays pop up in his various films. This time we had the aforementioned Weisser (who has the distinction of being his number one mainstay), Tim Thomerson, and Thom Mathews. Vincent Klyn must've been busy. The shot above, featuring two mainstays, would mean you'd have to drink double. One interesting thing to point out while we're on the subject of Norbert Weisser, and with last week's post on Hard Boiled, is that Weisser starred in Schindler's List, which just happens to be my number one film of the 90s.

I can't recommend a film based on effort or a cool idea that didn't quite come off. If you're looking for Hong Kong cinema fused with Cyber Punk, Albert Pyun actually has some great ones, like Cyborg and Nemesis; and then there's Omega Doom, which was a great Kurosawa fused with Cyber Punk flick. If what we're saying is one out of four didn't work, I'd say that isn't a bad ratio; and there were a lot of aspects of Heatseeker that did work, it was just the ones that didn't were enough to overshadow the ones that did. Also, this movie is only available on VHS. Figured I'd throw that out there.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0113278/

Monday, June 21, 2010

Unrivaled (2010)

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I'll be honest, I'm not sure how I ended up with this film. I mean, I know how I got it, it came from Netflix; and obviously, in order to get a film from Netflix, I have to put it in my queue, which I did. I think, because it was a new release, I had it really close to the top of the queue, which is filled with movies that either aren't out yet, or have waits of various amounts of time attached to them. Anyway, I got the e-mail telling me to expect Unrivaled, and that was that-- until I pulled it out of the sleeve and saw "2 hr. 5 min." for the running time. What? Considering the horror shows Hector Echavarria's last few films have been on here, I was floored. I actually even considered sending it back without watching it. I mean, 2+ hours of a Hector Echavarria MMA film? Can I handle this?

Luckily Unrivaled had its runtime mislabeled, and it was only in the 100 minute range. It has Echavarria as a kind of MMA Rocky who's living life in the dumps, losing money to bookies he can't pay because he bets on himself in underground fights and loses, and the money he makes as a barback at a local strip club doesn't off-set his bad fighting. In a crazy turn of events, a major MMA organization is holding a reality show-style tournament where four unknown fighters compete for a shot at the champ, "Sugar" Rashad Evans. Echavarria's geeky friend signs him up without his permission, and the film looks like it's doing a good job working the Rocky paradigm angle. That's until a bookie that appeared in the beginning becomes a bigger figure, tries to fix fights and sends people out to run over Echavarria's geeky friend-- or something like that. And as if things couldn't get convoluted enough, the guy from Da Vinci's Inquest is really overdoing it in the Burgess Meredith role. Luckily enough loose ends fly together fast enough to get us to the inevitable Rocky ending.

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I don't know where to go with this. Of the Echavarria films we've done, this is one of the better ones after Confessions of a Pit Fighter. I think it's that film that has kept me going back for the punishment I endure with each successive Echavarria effort, because I want what I got that first time. We were close here, but the film makers (Echevarria didn't direct this one, but he co-wrote it) couldn't trust that the Rocky paradigm was working well enough. They had to throw in fixed fights and muggings staged by the bookie that Echavarria's character was into for a bunch of cash. It took what was pretty good: Echavarria's character's shot at redemption and his chance to realize his true potential; and turned it into a big ol' mess that reminded me more of the Echavarria films that have irked me. Too bad, really.

The other reason I've been all about Echavarria's MMA movies: all the UFC stars he loads them with. This time he had Nate Marquardt, Keith Jardine, the aforementioned Evans, and UFC fan favorite Forrest Griffin (who I saw fight in UFC 55 along with Andrei Arlovski). Because I'm low on cash and I don't really want to download the PPVs for free, I haven't been following the sport as much as I used to, so the allure of UFC fighters in a movie isn't as big as it might have been last year at this time.

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Echavarria's female lead was played by Jordan Madley. The image of her above comes just before her love scene where she gets totally naked, and as I'm sure I've mentioned before, I often listen to the commentary as I capture images from the movies I review, just to gain a little insight. As always, the two guys we had here (not Echavarria though), talked about their film the way everyone else talks about Contempt, but the best came when they talked about Jordan's nude scene. Do they expect us to believe them that that nude scene was good for her character's development? We aren't ignoramuses. We know that a love scene would be perfectly fine without either actor getting naked, and that the only reason they had her get naked was to have her in the film naked-- which is fine, they just need to call a Spade a Spade, and not insult our intelligence.

The other thing they were so amped on was how great their fight scenes were. Did they see Undisputed 2? I'm not saying Unrivaled had awful fight scenes, and maybe they took as much work to produce as the people in the commentary said, but I'm not sure they should be polishing their brass button as much as they seemed to be. By all means, be proud of the work that was produced, but guys, Unrivaled wasn't the only martial arts movie ever made. There were plenty before it that had better fight scenes, and I'm sure there will be plenty after that will have better. In fact, this didn't even have the best fights of any Echavarria movie, Confessions of a Pit Fighter has that distinction.

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You might recognize this guy from those Verizon FiOS commercials. He pretty much plays the same character in this as he does in those, only here he's an annoying, snarky, announcer, as opposed to an annoying, snarky FiOS technician selling a service in a commercial. Does anyone understand this phenomenon? Snarky and annoying does not make me want a product-- in fact it makes me want it less. In our area, Comcast has counter ads where they use the guy from the USPS Postal Service commercials as the annoying FiOS guy, and he's actually less annoying than the guy he's making fun of.

This movie isn't good enough to recommend, and I actually think listening to the commentary made me like it less, which usually isn't the case, because more often the commentary explains why something was bad and gives me cause to let them off the hook, while in this case, the commentary about the nude scene and the fights made me less forgiving. The number one positive I took away from Unrivaled was that Hector Echavarria showed me why I liked him so much in Confessions of a Pit Fighter, so maybe that's enough.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1426325/

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Lat sau san taam aka Hard Boiled (1992)

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I don't remember exactly how it came up (I think there's a blog somewhere last year where I mentioned it), but I gave Ryan Kenner at Movies in the Attic my list of the top 10 films of the 1990s and asked him what his were. I was very surprised to see Hard Boiled on that list, not because I didn't think it was amazing, but because I'd always thought it came out in 1988. Somewhere along the line I obviously got some erroneous information, so I took a look at my list again, and right away, Hard Boiled was slotted in at number 6. It's that good.

Hard Boiled is about a cop, played by Chow Yun-Fat, who tends to drink a lot, but is still very good at what he does. When his partner dies in a too-sweet gun fight, he's on the warpath to apprehend those responsible. Things take an interesting turn, when someone he thinks is a bad guy turns out to be a fellow cop in deep cover. Both guys are used to being lone heroes, but they have to learn how to work together if they want to come out on top.

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With our Bad Lieutenant post, we now have two of my top ten films of the 90s posted on here (that film being my number 7). Hard Boiled is really that good. What makes it better than The Killer for me, is that it's something more. While The Killer was a fantastic merging of action and drama in a way that seldom works, Hard Boiled dialed down the drama, but turned the action into high art. This was Fellini, Goddard, Bergman, or Kurosawa, but it was done with guns-- and done with guns in a way I can't imagine any of those or any other great director pulling off. This was what people thought they were watching with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The question then is, how did we get from Hard Boiled, to Hard Target? Why hasn't someone whose Hong Kong films put him up there with some of the best living directors, like Scorsese, Almodóvar, and Eastwood, not been able to replicate that success here in the States. I think Almodóvar might be the best comparison, because he's stayed in his native Spain, while Woo left Hong Kong. Just like I can't see any American actors delivering on the uniquely European and Spanish takes Almodóvar has on sex and gender relations, I can't see any American actors going at an action scene with the same kind of intensity that Chow Yun-Fat or any other Hong Kong actors do. I mean, I love Tom Cruise, but he's no Chow Yun-Fat. Neither are Nicolas Cage or John Travolta. Or even Dolph Lundgren. Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood have much more creative freedom than Woo does, but they also don't make films that are as physically taxing on their actors, which means they don't have to worry about SAG reps or producers or insurance people nixing things that might put their stars in danger.

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When we think about great directors, we also think of great actors who are often associated with those directors. Max von Sydow and Ingmar Bergman. Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa. Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. With all of those directors, they moved onto other actors, and though they may not have captured that same magic, they still made classics. With Woo, though, he hasn't duplicated that form he had with Chow Yun-Fat-- and it could be said that other than Full Contact, Chow Yun-Fat hasn't really hit many home runs either. I'm not much of a video game guy (that's not true, rather I'm a literal video game addict, so I keep them away from me so I can function like a (somewhat) normal member of society), but I'm interested to see how Stranglehold is, because it's their first reunion since Hard Boiled.

Before I do another paragraph on the DVD version of the film I watched, I think I need to get back into a little DTVC bad action and leave the whole indie art house thing behind for a sec. As a huge action fan, this is pretty much as good as it gets. Hard Boiled is, as I mentioned above, action as high art. Not only did Woo not let the plot get in the way of the action, he made the plot the action. The dialog was the action, the story was told in action-- everything was action. As much as this is a great movie quality wise, action wise, it's like I won the Golden Ticket and was walking through Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. This is one of those movies that really works for both the mindless action crowd and the indie art house crowd, which is perfect for me, because I belong to both.

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Like The Killer, I went with the Criterion cover image, and like with The Killer, I watched the Dragon Dynasty version. You can get the Hard Boiled Criterion used for much cheaper than The Killer, $15-20, but again, being released in 1998, the Dragon Dynasty one might be better. It's a two-disc set (which I have only checked out the main disc of), and a pretty decent transfer, so I think getting Hard Boiled on Criterion is another case of doing it as a collector's item.

If you haven't seen this yet, even more than The Killer, it's a must. This isn't just Woo at it's finest, this is the art of cinema at its finest. Get it on Netflix, buy it at your local electronics shop, just check it out. As a side note, I won't be covering the Better Tomorrow series during this go round of Hong Kong films, so until we get back to them somewhere down the road, you can check out what Kenner thinks about them at his site (link is to the specific post).

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104684/

Dip huet seung hung aka The Killer (1989)

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I'm skipping around a little in our DTVC Wild Card look at Hong Kong cinema, going from Bruce Lee's films of the early 70s, to two John Woo greats of the late 80s early 90s, first The Killer, and then Hard Boiled. I did this because I didn't want to take too long in discussing Woo. For me, by going from Bruce Lee to John Woo, we maximize the energy early, and get us off to a great rolling start.

The Killer has Chow Yun-Fat as an assassin who almost blinds a woman caught in the crossfire while he's carrying out a job. This makes him feel guilty, and he wants to earn enough money for a cornea transplant so she can recover her sight. Unfortunately, in carrying out his last job for that money, he's seen, and the Triad boss that hired him wants him dead. At the same time, Danny Lee plays a police inspector on his trail, whose intuition is telling him that, though Chow may be a killer, he's not without honor and is redeemable.

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Here's a question: what do you get when you mix Seijun Suzuki's Branded to Kill, Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, and some of the best action scenes you've ever seen? You get The Killer, and it feels so good. It starts off with an amazing action scene, where you get Woo's trademark gun fights, where he makes gun play as beautiful as the best Hong Kong hand-to-hand martial arts battle. The end is an even better shoot out inside a Catholic church. And in between we're treated to a classic Yin and Yang story about a cop and killer, two sides of the same coin, with similar virtues and codes of honor. Think indie art house flick mixed with awesome action movie-- and it all works.

The biggest difference between The Killer and the Bruce Lee films we covered earlier, is that those were not necessarily high quality films, and instead became great due to Lee's presence. The Killer is a director driven action/drama that could be conceivably considered one of the top 50 films of the decade. Yes, Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee turned in great performances, as did many others in the film; but all of The Killer's greatness comes in Woo's vision. Anyone can make a Yin and Yang movie about a hired assassin and the cop chasing him, but Woo does it in a way that's extremely elegant and clean-- which is astounding considering we're talking about a movie that showcases myriad scenes of violence and destruction. (As it turns out, if Tsui Hark had his way, we would've gotten a drastically different film, so we're very lucky.)

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Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee have amazing chemistry, and Woo is able to utilize this, even when the two aren't sharing screen time. I'm not just talking about the more obvious scenes where Woo edits the film so the two look like they're doing the same things either. From the moment Danny Lee is introduced as the other side of the coin, the two are tied together, and Woo makes us feel that, even when one is on screen for a long stretch of time without the other.

There's this term that gets thrown around a lot when talking about dramas: Shakespearean. As someone who loves and reads Shakespeare rather frequently, I'm pretty familiar with his works, at least familiar enough to say that when people refer to a movie's tragic ending as Shakespearean, they often don't know what they're talking about. Ran was Shakespearean. The Killer definitely was not. I think what it is is people often don't have the capacity to put into words what they're seeing on the screen-- I know I often don't-- or what they're reading in Shakespeare's plays either, so they look at what they see for anything similar-- in this case a tragic ending-- and say "it's Shakespearean." A tragedy does not Shakespearean make.

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Finally, a quick note on the transfer. The DVD cover image above is from the out of print Criterion Collection version, which I haven't seen yet. (If you're wondering, it can run upwards to $90 used.) I watched the Dragon Dynasty version, which was still pretty great, and I see now they have a Blu-Ray version as well. I have a feeling, because the Criterion version came out in 1998, that Dragon Dynasty version is actually better because it's so recent, so if you're spending $90 (or more) on the Criterion one, you're doing it just as a collector's item-- which isn't a bad thing either.

I tried my best not to give too much away in the sixth paragraph for those who haven't seen this yet. It is one of my all time favorite films, and reviewing it for the DTVC was one of my own selfish reasons for wanting to do Hong Kong films here. You can get the Dragon Dynasty version of Netflix, and I'm sure it's available to buy anywhere as well.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097202/

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Dolan's Cadillac (2009)

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Do to the amount of positive response we received after we reviewed the Christian Slater film Lies and Illusions, I couldn't wait to get another one of his films up. I went with Dolan's Cadillac because, in addition to Slater, it has Wes Bentley, Emanuelle Vaugier, and it was written by Mainer Stephen King. Oh yeah, and it's available on Watch Instantly, another plus.

Dolan's Cadillac is about a couple, Bentley and Vaugier, who work as teachers in small town Nevada. Vaugier witnesses the murders of a cargo of women trafficked by Slater, and Slater has her killed so she can't testify. This, understandably, sends Bentley's life spiralling out of control in a wave of depression, booze, drugs, and insanity. He starts seeing images of his dead wife, and thinks she's telling him to kill Slater to avenge her death. He buys a gun and plots out the murder, only to have it fail. Slater beats him severely for this, but instead of killing him, tells him leaving him alive would be a harsher sentence because he's such a weakling. As he's about give up on everything, he's taken by the FBI to see the bodies of the women his wife saw murdered exhumed from where Slater buried them, and he gets an idea...

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I liked this. I wasn't expecting to, but I did. It's probably been twenty-five years or so since a Stephen King story was made into a movie I liked, so this was a pleasant surprise. The problem is, I haven't read the story (in fact I haven't read much Stephen King), so I have no idea where King ends and the people who adapted it for the screen begin. Was it King who created the amazing juxtaposition of Bentley's crusade to avenge his wife-- a wife who is ultimately just one woman-- with all the nameless women Slater's trafficked into the country and treats like cattle-- maybe worse than cattle. It gave the whole film a level of depth we seldom see in a DTV indie suspense movie. On top of that, Bentley and Slater give excellent performances, and Vaugier does her part in being not only very beautiful, but also a strong and independent woman, which allows us to believe it when Bentley goes nuts after she dies. Throughout all their scenes together, it's Bentley who's so afraid to lose Vaugier, and it's Vaugier who sees herself as no better than anyone else. In fact, she's the only person who gets that juxtaposition the film uses to create depth that I mentioned above. On the other hand, while it was a quality story, it also felt long, even at 88 minutes. Around the 45 minute mark I thought I was like 75 minutes in, which made the rest of the film feel that much longer. If you think you can manage that, you'll be okay.

Before I go much further, I should discuss Slater's job, because he's the number one reason I watched this and you're seeing the review of it up here. It's fascinating, because I want to compare him to Cuba Gooding Jr., just because both were big, and now both not only do DTV movies, but they do the same types. Why is it, then, that Slater seems so at home in these films, and Gooding's parts seem so forced? Maybe because Gooding had further to fall than Slater did, and if I sense any anger and resentment in Gooding's performances, it's probably justified. I mean, I don't have as large a sample size to go with, but in just two movies, I've felt better about what I've seen from Slater. Again, maybe I shouldn't be comparing the two.

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Emmanuelle Vaugier is back, after too long of an absence, when we reviewed the Uwe Boll pain fest Far Cry. Calling her a hottie is a total understatement, but I think focusing on her looks (which is easy to do), unfairly neglects what a great job she did. As much as Bentley's character subtly tried to put her in a glass case because he was afraid (as it turned out rightly so) something would happen to her, she needed to, just as subtly, not so much free herself from his need, but act like she didn't see herself as someone needing to be in a glass case. It's not that her character doesn't know how hot she is, it's that she doesn't think that should make her any more important than all the unfortunate woman who met horrific deaths at Slater's hands.

I went to some of the message boards on imdb to see if I could discern where King's book ends and the movie begins, and instead all I could find were toolbags bemoaning how the film didn't do King's fantastic literary prowess justice. Please help me. First off, if his story is so different, maybe it actually wasn't that great, and you toolbags only liked it because it had the name Stephen King attached to it, because the story in this movie was very solid. Surreal, perhaps, but that just enhanced it. Being from Maine and having gone to UMaine, King is quite a big deal. I'm not sure anyone does a better job of taking the isolation of so much of the state, and making it frightening. On the other hand, he's no Faulkner, or Joyce, or even Philip Roth, and I'm sure he'd be the first to tell everyone that. He's a commercial fiction writer who is very good at what he does-- don't go looking at movies made of his films and write them off if they aren't word for word adaptations. In most cases-- and probably this one in particular-- it was done to make the film more watchable, and at 88 minutes, this film was still a little slow.

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We had a chance to look at Wes Bentley when he played Blackheart in Ghost Rider. I was wondering why he didn't have a lot of films to his credit, so I looked up the trivia on him, and found out he told the New York Times that he'd spent most of the 2000s seriously addicted to drugs and only worked to make money so he could buy more. I guess that would explain it then. Hopefully, as he gets things back in order, people will see him in films like this, and he'll get more and better roles, because he was great here.

Especially since it's available on Watch Instantly, Dolan's Cadillac is well worth looking at. In terms of a revenge flick, it's not anything like the bad action shoot 'em ups we're used to at the DTVC, so don't go into it looking for that. Think more indie suspense thriller with a Stephen King twist, starring Christian Slater, Wes Bentley, and Emmanuelle Vaugier. On the other hand, even at 88 minutes, it does feel long, so keep that in mind as well if you're giving this a spin.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0963965/

Monday, June 7, 2010

Arcade (1993)

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This is one of about five or six Albert Pyun films on Netflix I have left to review, so I thought I'd go for it. The deciding factor when faced with multiple Pyun options? John de Lancie, of course. This wasn't a first choice among potential Albert Pyun films, though. First, I wanted to do his newest one, Bulletface, but that one isn't available on Netflix, and I don't have the money right now to buy it outright, no matter how good a bargain it's offered at. Another I'd wanted to do was Heatseeker, but that one's only available on VHS, so I put it out of my mind for a while. Can you guess what happened then? I get Arcade home, watch it, capture images of it, and then later in the week, I come across Heatseeker in a buddy's VHS collection tucked away in his garage. "Oh, I must've bought it when that video store went out of business. Sure, you can take it, I don't think it was any good anyway..." Since we already had Arcade, and it's fresh in my mind, I decided to do that now, and Heatseeker we'll do next week, satisfying our Gary Daniels crowd at the same time.

Arcade stars the lovely Megan Ward as a teen dealing with her mom's suicide and her dad's inability to cope with her mom's suicide. She and her friends are big time gamers (including the kid from A Christmas Story, Seth Green, and AJ Langer), and they invite her to join them for a launch party for the game Arcade, the latest in virtual reality technology, and shilled by the one and only John de Lancie. Ward's boyfriend disappears while playing the game, and she soon discovers the game is what, as my nephew would say, disappeared him, and she has trouble convincing anyone to believe her, meaning they're disappeared too. All except for the kid from A Christmas Story, because he has a crush on Ward, and we all know if someone has a crush on someone, he or she will believe anything that person says. They investigate, go to de Lancie and his head programmer, Pyun mainstay Norbert Weisser, devise a plan, and then play the game to get their friends back.

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Even though this was a DTV movie, it played out more like a Nickelodeon original film, maybe a Goosebumps story arc or something. That doesn't mean Pyun doesn't add his own personal touches to make this something bigger than that-- there are welcome cyber punk elements, and of course, the inclusion of Norbert Weisser-- but he was fighting an uphill battle. Looking at it in situ, though, as opposed to what the average DTVC reader would want out of a movie, for a 1993 pre-teen video game thriller, it works. The thing is, most of our readers are looking for Mean Guns, not Arcade, and there's nothing wrong with that, it just means that though this film isn't bad, it's probably not for you.

We love Albert Pyun here at the DTVC, not only because he directs the kinds of films we all enjoy, but because he's been kind enough to comment, which is always great. With that in mind, I feel bad that I haven't been able to reciprocate that support as much as I'd have liked, primarily by not checking out his newest film, Bulletface. Unfortunately it's only available through his website, http://www.albertpyunmovies.com/, and though you can buy it for a very reasonable price, I just don't have the money right now to get it. To give you an idea of what I get for my $17 or so a month from Netflix: in May alone, I received 10 movies at home on DVD, and got another 15 on Watch Instantly-- and that includes 10 days where I didn't watch anything while I was on vacation! So $11 before shipping, with the Inferno version of his film Left For Dead included, definitely sounds like a great deal, but on my limited budget, it becomes almost frivolous. That doesn't mean I won't buy the film as soon as I can, just an explanation as to why I haven't gotten to it yet. I also want to make clear to anyone wondering why I don't just get a torrent of it for free: as a policy I don't download movies that are still in print, but that goes double for Mr. Pyun's work. I want to support his movies as much as possible.

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All right, with that out of the way, let's get back to Arcade, and its lead, Megan Ward. I think the role I remember her best in was PCU, but she's also done her share of TV dramas and whatnot. Total hottie as well, which doesn't hurt. What adds to her overall hotness in Arcade is her ability to roll with the punches, and transcend all the ridiculousness inherent in a movie like this one. There's something endearing about a girl (or 24-year-old woman at the time in her case), who can wear a skintight body suit and oversized racing helmet, and not let onto us just how silly the whole thing is, even if she might be thinking it just as much as we do.

I've never been a big fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, so I have no idea why I know so much about it, or why I love seeing any of the cast members acting in anything else. And it's not like I'm ashamed of it or anything. I mean, I'm writing a blog about Direct to Video movies, I certainly don't think being a Trekkie is anything bad, right? I really don't like the show, yet I love watching it. Does that make any sense? Anyway, John de Lancie has a small part in this as the salesman for the video game company. Pretty sweet if you ask me.

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Even sweeter is Norbert Weisser's knit tie in this scene. You can't really see it from the image, but it's there. I love ties. I own a bunch that I've collected over time at various Goodwills and thrift stores. This astounds my friends, because I've never had a job where I needed a tie, meaning I seldom wear one. Maybe that's why I think they're so cool. It's also one of the most often screwed up aspects of men's attire. I don't know how many times I see guys on TV, or even more so in my everyday life, draping some Godawful excuse for neck wear over the front of their shirts. It just breaks my heart. (I think the most often screwed up aspect of men's attire is the size of the dress shirt. I don't know how many times I see guys in these billowing adornments that make them look like they raided their father's closet as a child.) One of the more difficult ties to wear right is the knit, which is why I tend to stay away from it, but Weisser really pulls it off here, adding a touch of style to an otherwise drab lab suit.

I've totally gone off topic here, which is what usually happens on that seventh paragraph, so let's reign it in and wrap it up. Arcade is probably not for most of the DTVC's readers, especially those looking for something more like Nemesis or Mean Guns; but at 80 minutes, it's a fun trip down memory lane, and has a lot of familiar faces. As long as you know what you're getting into, I think you'll have a fun time.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0106302/

Friday, June 4, 2010

Tang shan da xiong aka The Big Boss aka Fist of Fury (1971)

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I've always known this movie as Fist of Fury. The other name it goes by is The Big Boss, but I didn't know that, and was always like "man, I need to check out The Big Boss sometime, everyone says it's great." It makes sense, now that I think of it, that all the Wu Tang members would have so many nicknames, since they grew up on Hong Kong cinema, and their favorite films went by so many names. What makes this situation especially confusing, though, is Fist of Fury is also another name The Chinese Connection goes by. So, to recap, The Big Boss is called Fist of Fury here in the States, and Fist of Fury is called The Chinese Connection. I'm going to go by the US English names, as opposed to the Hong Kong English names, but I'll keep the Hong Kong names in the post's title in order to clear up any confusion.

Fist of Fury has Bruce Lee as a Chinese farmer going to stay with extended family in Thailand in order to keep himself out of trouble. Problem is, his family is knee deep in it, after a couple of them stumble upon the ice making factory they work for's dark secret: it's a front for moving large quantities of drugs. The two family members are killed in order to ensure their silence, and two more a killed trying to investigate said murders. That leaves Lee, who vowed he wouldn't fight anymore, but finds he has to at the factory to protect himself when a skirmish breaks out between workers and management. This endears him to his bosses, who make him foreman; and while this alienates him from the rest of his family who now work below him, it gives him the access he needs to get to the bottom of all the killing.

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Another great film. What I loved about this one was the plot device of Lee's promise to his family in China not to fight. Because Lee is such an amazing presence, the mere idea of him eventually fighting is enough to keep us enthralled. With each fight that happens we see Lee's character getting ready to join in, and as anxious as he is to show his stuff, we too are anxious to see it. This is a ploy that can only be used with such a charismatic actor, because with anyone else we'd be annoyed; but with Lee we know we're watching greatness, and we know he's worth the wait, and we're almost willing to be made to wait, because that makes every moment he does fight that much bigger and worthwhile. It's like the character of Chad Newsome in The Ambassadors, where so much of the book is about him, yet he's only actually in it for a fraction, so that the actual parts with him in them seem almost larger than life. The same is with Lee, where Fist of Fury has a lot of fight scenes, and Lee's in them, but not actually fighting, so when he does actually fight, he too is larger than life. (That's right, I just compared a Bruce Lee movie to a Henry James novel.)

This film again is indicative of just how huge a figure Bruce Lee is. Can you think of any other action star, or even fictitious character, where we would put up with being teased about his or her potential action scenes? Maybe the first Superman movie, but that's it, and Superman isn't real. The other example I gave above of Chad Newsome was written by one of the greatest English language writers of all time. We're talking here about an actor that has such a screen presence that he turns a pretty paint-by-numbers Hong Kong actioner into Richard Donner's Superman, or even bigger, Henry James' The Ambassadors-- okay, maybe that second one is a stretch, but the overall energy he exudes isn't.

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There was a bit of a discussion in the Pray for Death post about whether or not killing the wife was the right move, and I'm forced to defend myself here for liking this film, where Lee's family, including his young cousin, are massacred near the end of it. First and foremost, the preceding two paragraphs should give you a little insight into how I feel about that, because as good as Shô Kosugi is, he's no Bruce Lee. In fact, I'd forgotten all about the massacre until I went back to capture images, and I saw the scene where they juxtaposed Lee's fancy dinner with his boss, and the one his family was having in their little shack. I guess the other thing I would say is, as bad as the family massacre was, it was just that one thing. With Kosugi in Pray for Death, it was a piling on: first the kidnapping, then the hit by a car, then the wife killing. Here, Lee's cousins are killed for seeing the wrong thing, then two more are killed investigating that, then you get the massacre. Had they kidnapped the family, tortured them, then killed them, you'd have an argument. Also, I must reiterate, this wasn't the greatest script ever, it was Lee that elevated it. Maybe if he did Pray for Death I would've been singing a different tune as well.

Back to the Madacy transfer. For the first hour and fifteen minutes or so, this was perfectly fine. Sure, maybe it was grainy and scratchy, but compared to what I was used to with this kind of thing, I was okay with that. It was the last fifteen or so that killed me. It looked like they ripped it from a warped VHS copy. I mean, are you kidding me? Like, have you ever had a tape eaten in the VCR, wound it back in, then played the cassette? You know how the picture will go in spots? That's what this was like. Again, just utter laziness, and then they're selling this crap? I expect better from the bootleg DVD/tropical fish store in Chinatown (this place actually exists). I understand that back in the 80s and 90s there were a lot of cheap versions of these floating around, and I'd feel lucky to get one of them; but this is a DVD company selling them to Netflix, and they're really no better than a bootlegger in the subway. That's appalling to me.

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The trivia section on imdb about this movie is worth checking out. It gives some insight into why it was named what it was here the States, why Lee's character doesn't fight until the last half of the film (something I was giving them credit for as being ingenious that may not have been so), and even facts about the shooting locations. One of the interesting ones is that they used a real Thai brothel and real prostitutes for the brothel scenes.

I got this through Netflix as part of a two-sided disc from Madacy that also had The Chinese Connection. You already know what I think of those versions, but as films, they're great. I can't think of a better way to kick off our look at Hong Kong cinema, than with two Bruce Lee gems.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067824/

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Jing wu men aka Fist of Fury aka The Chinese Connection (1972)

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This is one I remember growing up. I had it on VHS and my friends and I would watch it fairly frequently. Bruce Lee is just the man, there's no two ways about it. I figured it would make a great first post on our Wild Card look at Hong Kong films.

The Chinese Connection has Lee as a great martial artist returning home to ask the woman he loves to marry him, only to find out his master died shortly before. He's suspicious, and he's right to be so, as a Japanese school in Shanghai shows up to threaten Lee's school so they can take it over. After Lee pays the Japanese school a visit, then kicks everyone's ass, all hell breaks loose. The Japanese want his head, and the local police chief has to oblige them due to all the clout the Japanese have in Shanghai. That drives Lee into hiding, as he investigates his master's death. As the proof he needs mounts, the Japanese plot their revenge as well. It's a collision course to wackiness.

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This is an excellent film. Sure, it's slow in parts, but who cares? It's got Bruce Lee, the greatest action star ever. Among the great scenes, there's the one where Lee kills a guy pulling him forward by the neck, so the guy's katana that had been flown in the air, impaled the guy in the back. Amazing. Then there's his fight with The Stash. Simply fantastic. Even better than all this, was the cultural and ethnic elements-- Japanese control over China, and Chinese resentment of said control, with a hero like Bruce Lee who stands up to them. Sound familiar? How about almost every Blaxploitation movie ever. The Chinese Connection is the best singular argument for why it was better we examined Hong Kong cinema here before Blaxploitation, for we wouldn't have one without the other.

Bruce Lee is a very unique star, in that he can make a movie just by being in it. He's even awesome just putting on a jacket. Very few film stars ever have had that kind of impact. We're talking about Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn level. I can't think of any actor today with that kind of power. Maybe Al Pacino, but not quite to that degree. You can go through and list any action star you want, but none of them make every scene there in, just by being in them, the way Bruce Lee does. Without Lee as the extreme charismatic figure that he was, Hong Kong cinema wouldn't have exploded the way it did.

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I seldom comment on the transfers of the movies we review, but I wouldn't be doing my job here if I didn't at least say something. Madacy really dropped the ball. I got this on Netflix as part of a two pack, with Fist of Fury on the other half, and both films were in such horrible condition. I'm all for scratches and wear and tear on the film, but a poor, cheap transfer is unacceptable. Don't get ripped off, the movie is great, but not Madacy's version.

Also of note, the Madacy version does not allow for the original soundtrack with English subtitles. I know with 70s Kung Fu films, bad dubbing is supposed to enhance the experience, but I'd at least like the option. I'm not sure when it happened in my life, but somewhere along the line I switched from dubbing to subtitles, and now I can't stand dubbed movies. Maybe it's a foreign film thing, or a Criterion Collection thing, but that's just how I am.

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People reading this may call me to the carpet for all the times I called movies to the carpet for having too much downtime in their films, after The Chinese Connection was guilty of just such an offense. Simply put, if a movie has Bruce Lee, it can get away with it. Gary Daniels is no Bruce Lee. Olivier Gruner is no Bruce Lee. Steve Seagal is no Bruce Lee. Dolph Lundgren is no Bruce Lee. Arnold Schwarzenegger is no Bruce Lee. Do you see the point I'm making here?

Like the comic book series, I think recommendations are superfluous, because it should be obvious. What I will say is, the Madacy transfer is an abomination. 20th Century Fox released one in 2002 that was much better, but hopefully with the technology we have today, a fully restored high quality version will emerge-- maybe even with the original sound track.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068767/

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Tiger Claws III (1999)

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This is the third and final installment in the Tiger Claws saga-- and I use the term saga with all intended irony. We did Tiger Claws just to get part one out of the way so I could review Tiger Claws II, which featured blog favorite Evan Lurie. Now it was time to finish and do part three, and though I was in part reluctant because parts one and two weren't exactly awesome, the addition of Loren Avedon, who was great in King of the Kickboxers, made me more optimistic.

Tiger Claws III takes place some time after part 2. In it, Jalal Merhi and Cynthia Rothrock are police partners-- and perhaps lovers as well-- and they're on the case of someone who broke into a warehouse storing priceless Chinese artifacts. Turns out Avedon was the potential thief, and he wanted to steal three ancient assassin's suits, which he really didn't need to steal anyway, because he was able to do with them what he wanted at a party for their unveiling: cast an ancient spell and bring ancient assassins who filled the outfits back to life in the present. These supernatural Chinese assassins are wreaking havoc all over New York, they've killed Rothrock, and Merhi has no idea what to do, so he seeks help in Avedon's former master (the great Carter Wong in his final role to date), a teacher in the art of Black Tiger. Merhi, having already taken the prerequisites in regular Tiger, was able to jump right in and take the advanced Black Tiger classes, and he used that power to combat the baddies.

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I guess, if you're going to go out, you might as well do it with a bang. Or rather, do it as ridiculously as possible. Supernatural ancient assassins brought back to life? Why not, just go for it. The thing is, that ridiculousness needs to pay off with solid action, and we didn't exactly get that. We had some great martial artists, and instead of them duking it out, we were treated to bad Street Fighter II rip-off effects with guys throwing blue balls of energy that looked like Ryu's Hadoken. That might not have been so bad, if we weren't tantalized by some great pockets of good fight scenes here and there. I guess the question is: does the silliness detract enough to make the film stupid, or make it fun?

This delivers a pretty solid Cynthia Rothrock bait-and-switch, as she dies early on. Considering she's the one Hall of Famer in the film, it was quite the disappointment. I'm debating which will be her next film we cover, either No Retreat, No Surrender 2 or Martial Law (with the idea being that immediately after we'd review Martial Law 2, which I think is the better of the two). I'm getting better at getting my hands on her older catalog, and that will allow us to look at more of the movies she's known for. I'm pretty excited about that. Also, according to imdb, as of 2009 she and Richard Norton are shopping a new project around. Let's cross our fingers.

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When last we saw Loren Avedon, he was tearing it up as the hero in King of the Kickboxers. Now he's playing a baddie in Tiger Claws III, and he did an even better job, in my opinion. It was almost like, with his goatee, he was Bizarro Avedon. What's great is, if you compare his bad guy to the one of Billy Blanks in King of the Kickboxers, you'll notice that he's much more like Jack Nicholson as the Joker in Batman, and he played it well. In fact, thinking about the late Dennis Hopper, you could almost say Avedon channelled that great actor as well. He hasn't made a film since the unreleased in this country Circuit III, which was produced in 2006. I'm not as familiar with his career as our friend Kenner at Movies in the Attic is, so maybe he can shed some light on why Avedon stopped working, and why he doesn't have that many credits in general.

I love Street Fighter II and all its sequels and whatnot. We used to play it for hours in high school. I went online to find out exactly how to spell Hadoken, and saw all kinds of screen shots and drawings people did. It brought it all back for me. I just want to go to the mall, buy a collection of all the games used for my PS2, and spend the next fives days living off Doritos and Mountain Dew. Man, those were the days.

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At UMaine I majored in anthropology, and as you can imagine, at a certain level, the class sizes got pretty small, as very few people wanted to take a class on Peoples of the South Pacific Islands or Systems of Family and Kinship. The way the department managed to subsidize these upper level classes was through the enormous introductory classes, which a large percentage of students took at one time or other as a Gen Ed requirement. I was a TA for that class, and we had like 500 students in it. Anyway, in Tiger Claws III, Merhi takes a course in Black Tiger, and he's professor Carter Wong's only pupil. I have to assume the introductory Tiger courses must have many more students to allow for such personalized instruction. I think it was good, though, that Merhi, having the prerequisites from his early Tiger courses, decided to continue his studies. Maybe he'll apply for a minor in Tiger.

Somewhere this post to a left turn into Goofy-dom, so let's get it back on the main road and wrap it up. This had its moments, but overall was just too silly for words. You can get it on either DVD or VHS, but Netflix no longer carries it, so you'll have to dig if you want it. I'm not so sure you do. (Oh, and I tagged Bolo Yeung, but he's only in the film in a few flashback sequences from the first movie. Just wanted to let you know.)

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0197951/